Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008, is the story of Roseanne, a woman approaching her 100th birthday who has spent much of her adult life in a Sligo asylum now due to close.
In a recent conversation with the novelist Jo Hamya, Barry reflected on the process and experience of writing the book - and shared with us his original manuscript outline, which you can read below.
The book was featured along with five other Booker-nominated novels in Between The Covers, the BBC Two book club presented by Sara Cox. Discover more about the series here.
Author Jo Hamya explains the background to interviewing Sebastian Barry
‘These are very private moments which I’m communicating to you,’ Sebastian Barry tells me over the phone, ‘but I think anyone embarking on a reading of a book, in this context especially, deserves all the private information they can get from the writer.’ We are talking about the process of writing The Secret Scripture, using an early outline we have dug up together to jog Barry’s memory. Back then the book’s title was still The Hammers and the Feathers. It had a linear, more overtly morally didactic plot, and was set during World War Two. Rather than being told by its heroine, it is more about her, and her use as a device to discuss religious and political ideologies in Thirties and Forties Ireland.
The Secret Scripture, on the other hand, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Recounted partly as an autobiography by Roseanne, an almost 100-year-old patient of Roscommon asylum, and partly through the commonplace book of her psychiatrist, Dr. Grene, the book pieces together their conflicting accounts of her early life in post-Civil-War Sligo, and the events which led to her confinement.
As we spoke, Barry’s voice came warmly down the line. He laughed often, and had a tendency to speak of Roseanne as though she were in the next room, temporarily indisposed and in need of him as a proxy. Sentences often vaulted midway through while he considered other possibilities, and then joined up to accommodate newly thought of information. To hear him tell it, the business of writing fiction contained all the gravitas and consequence of forming a relationship with someone. Below, he discusses the connection between real life and fiction, the novel’s controversial ending, and the process of unearthing character.
‘Outlines are odd things. They’re written before the novel is written and they’re to fulfil a contractual requirement for a publisher. It’s an odd thing really. You haven’t yet written the book. If you’re like me, you’re only creeping up on it, but you have to put something down on paper. In this case, I tried to write a film about Roseanne because I thought she deserved the glamour of a film. But unfortunately I wasn’t very good at it.
Each novel is a three-year cycle for me, and this followed A Long Long Way, so this must have been written around 2005, for my American publisher. What I didn’t have then, of course, was, the fact of Roseanne writing her own account of herself. So, it’s very much from the outside.
I would never go back to an outline, usually. I would never look at it again whenever coming back to write the book; in fact, I would do my best to forget it because everything is in the appearance of the book under your face and hands as you’re working. That’s the only thing you have. There’s no safety net, and although an outline has some of the character of a possible safety net, no man or person ever gave a good show if they knew they were going to be saved when they fell. But the romance of this piece of paper for me is that like Roseanne hiding her account under the floorboards, where she says the rats can gnaw at it if they wish, there are some very mysterious stains on this script. It’s held at the Harry Ransom Centre, so I imagine it’s something that had metal in it lying on top of it for many years, maybe.’
‘The most important thing I had before I started writing vis à vis Roseanne was an image, a kind of snippet of a film in my head. I had seen the ending of Cyrano de Bergerac (dir. Jean-Paul Rappeneau), and at the end of the film, he’s just leaning against an enormous tree trunk. There’s a wind moving through the forest behind. I had an image of Roseanne (which is sort of in the book, but this is the fiction inside the fiction) of Roseanne and Eneas – or Charles as he’s called in the outline, because Charles was his real name – the two of them standing there. They’ve just been swum across and been cleaned by the river, escaping from the asylum.
And it was just an image in my head of the two of them standing by the trees, with the wind moving through the trees like in that film. I thought, that’s what I really want. That’s what I had. And it was from that that I made the book. And the strange thing of course is that that’s what happens. She does mention her version of that dream. Those visualisations are the real things.
Ultimately, it’s not even about notes of music, it’s not even about the paint in the tubes of paint, it’s something beyond that.’
‘The emergence of Roseanne telling her own story arose partly due the influence of the person I’m married to, who was instructing me carefully – kindly but firmly – about agency, especially in women’s history. As a stupid man, I was in need of instruction. But I would also say that the day I began to write it, Roseanne took it from me. I had no real plan, because a plan is no good to you. You can have a map, but it’s not drawn by anyone who’s been there, like one of those strange, Ptolemaic maps of places you’ve never been. It was just her voice, saying, ‘The world begins anew with every birth, my father used to say.’ I don’t remember if that was the ‘first’-first line. That would probably be, ‘That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.’
And really, when you get your first sentence (and I probably waited nine months for that), the rest follows mysteriously. It’s as if you could see the rest of the book, the sentences, the rest of it lying behind on the landscape. I followed that. I can’t stress enough how much in the dark I was.’
‘The psychiatrist, Dr. Grene, is not even mentioned in this outline. He didn’t exist in any shape or form. He appeared in the book because she mentions him. I was a few chapters in, and she was talking about her psychiatrist who comes in to her. And I think it was my agent who said, “we should have more about him”. And I thought, “Eh. I want this book to be entirely Roseanne’s. I don’t want a man interfering with it in any shape or form, or having authorship”.
But what interested me about Dr. Grene was a kind of prosaicness, which was a kind of antidote to the essentially poetic nature of Roseanne. I felt it was doing something interesting. He’s so dull, in a way. I was very interested in that. I was very concerned early on that he was there as a kind of service character, which you don’t want. But I did need somebody eventually to read her account. So he was immensely useful for that.’
‘A book is always written, inevitably, when you’re knee deep in your own modern water of history. What’s happening in your private life, in your life. When I was a third of the way in with this book, my mother’s acting agent got in touch with me and said,”Do you know your mother is in hospital?” I didn’t. My mother had not told me. So I immediately thought, “I should forget about the book, I should do this now”. We hadn’t spoken for a couple of years - it was all very complicated. But in fact, the book really became about that. No matter what happens between a mother and a child, there’s nothing that can go deep enough to disturb that connection. And that’s what I found as my mother was in fact dying. That I was being drawn back by that cable. It informed the entire book. The whole nature of Roseanne’s understanding of nature, of the natural world, would be the best of my mother. The very poetic part of my mother I unthinkingly gave to Roseanne, or Roseanne was expressing it for me, I should say.
Eventually, as things went on, I had the realisation that, “I’m supposed to be washing her clothes…” You know, as stupid as they come, it took me weeks to work that out: washing her clothes, bringing them back, washing them, folding them, all that stuff that you have to do when you “love someone”, inverted commas. Well, without inverted commas! And I think it was the taking away of the inverted commas that brought me to the ending of the book and the philosophy it takes, actually.’
‘There was some controversy about the ending. But you know, there wasn’t any other it could possibly have. It was so bound into the journeys I made in the car [to my mother] playing Joni Mitchell’s Blue, trying to survive this event. It was inextricable. It wasn’t about writing fiction. It wasn’t anything except a kind of skein, or survival. Roseanne anchored that. I couldn’t possibly have disturbed it in the end. It’s an interesting thing for me, because I often think about it. She’s writing her book. Doctor Grene’s writing in his commonplace book. Father Gaunt is a kind of writer as well, I suppose. But there’s a fourth writer there, who’s me. And I was very concerned for Roseanne. That I had to prove that she hadn’t killed her child, because that’s what was at stake there. I didn’t want matricide, I didn’t want an ending where everything is up in the air either – I thought that would be an atrocity. I didn’t want to leave her floundering, or childless.
So I was very, very happy to have somebody to hand who could be her magic…that’s how I understand the ending, it’s a sort of magic. At the same time, my beautiful friend, Ivor Browne, who glories in the title of Chief Psychiatrist of the Eastern Health Board, told me of instances where people who had been separated, mothers and sons… He knew of a case where a man had been on a train every morning, and had often seen a cleaning lady on the train carriage every morning for years and years and years. And eventually, however it happened, they discovered that she was actually his mother. And they had come from different parts of the country, and they had sort of ended up in the same place, as if that cable I described was indestructible, and it was always going to draw them together. I put great faith in that. I thought that was…there was a truth in that beyond the objections over what some people might conceive of as a Dickensian ending. But I thought it was worth keeping. I know it’s become debased, inverted commas, by soap operas and all that but there’s another stage before that where it can be quite true, and certainly quite magical in human terms.’
‘When you get to 66, as I have myself, you get a more profound sense of the in-cahoot-ness of the reader. Your book simply doesn’t exist without its reader charging into it. It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about as Laureate for Irish fiction. There are so many stages of a book, of a work. One of those is arriving, in old fashioned terms, in the lap of the reader. Sitting in that place they sit in in order to read. Or perhaps, lying in the bed, reading, with that light they’ve bought in IKEA to read with.
Readers have their own life and all their own feelings, and all their own travails. They bring them to the book. That process has an immensity to me. It has a sort of heroic activity. To go from start to finish and to have a sort of moment at the end, a bit like the moment for the writer when they finish writing, where they’re closing the book but they’re carrying it on with them.
I remember J.M. Coetzee read one of my books, maybe it was A Long Long Way, and sent a message that it was a work of “human value”. The more I thought of it…”human value”. It isn’t just from a writer, it’s a communal value, it’s a universal value. The hardest thing on earth to get a hold of. And it’s what makes something good. So actually the thing that makes your book good is outside of you.’
‘There’s a whole discipline in learning how to read your editor, let alone your editor reading you. It is a very nervy place, handing off a manuscript. You have to allow for the possibility that it’s a pile of malodorous nonsense — you just have to. And then you’ll put that away, and with the grace of God, you’ll write another book straightaway, but…I never have any opinion of my own on the work. I just don’t have any insight into it.
When I gave The Secret Scripture to Angus [Cargill] he was very quiet about it. I had a play years ago called White Woman Street and in it, a character named Mo Mason says, “God listening, look in silence”. And it was that sort of silence, you know? Where something he thought good had arrived on his desk, but he didn’t want to say too much about it in case he scared away the angels. I remember that well.’
‘I read [that first outline] through clenched eyes. I was interested in the title because I remember writing that chapter of her father bringing her to the top of the tower almost explicitly to explain the title of the book [The Hammers and the Feathers]. And then the title of course was changed. But the passage remained. And I wouldn’t have had that piece in the book if I hadn’t had the wrong title to begin with. The other thing I liked was that I’d forgotten that in the outline she and Eneas, or Charles, get away together. Like Jesse James. Mr. and Mrs. Jesse James, except she’s Jesse James. They get on that boat from Dunleary. It’s a boat I took ten thousand times as a young man, as a young writer, trying to find somewhere to write, often on that boat. I think often, in essence, the whole business of life is to get down to Mexico before Pat Garrett catches up with you. And I can see that in a way in that ending, even though it’s entirely different. She does get away, she does have that bit of gold in her pocket. Pat can’t cross that border.’